Got the numbers – why not use them?

7 Apr

Ah, the gender pay gap – have you had enough of it yet? It’s been in the headlines rather a lot lately, thanks to the government’s new reporting regime,  which means that all organisations with over 250 employees had to get their figures in during the first week of April.

So what do the numbers measure? Not equal pay, which is the business of all employees being paid the same amount for the same job, as dealt with in the Equal Pay Act of 1970, whereby pay discrimination was outlawed; but rather the difference between men and women’s average hourly pay in the same company.  At this point, the chorus of dissent begins: it is not illegal to pay men and women differently if they are in different jobs at different levels.  There may be all sorts of good reasons why men and women are paid differently –  e.g. the airline defence: it’s not the company’s fault that nearly all the pilots are men, and most of  the stewarding crew, women.  Also, some argue, if the impetus is to reduce the gender pay gap over time, some companies may offload their least well-paid (predominantly female) employees to change their figures for the better.  Here, you need to imagine large conglomerates, where the highly paid professionals are predominantly male, but the service employees are predominantly female – one solution could be, to outsource your cleaning contracts, so that the gender pay gap appeared to narrow, while simultaneously potentially worsening the employment situation of your lowest-paid female labour force.  Another objection  to gender pay gap reporting might be that a 0% gender pay gap is a kind of totalitarian totem, which signifies little, and rides roughshod over men’s and women’s patterns of employment.

In response, I’d say, yes, the figures are crude, but the very fact that we have them, puts imbalances in the public domain, that were rarely quite so visible before.  The airline defence partly falls down when you  observe variance across the sector: Ryanair’s gender differentials in pay are particularly large, while Easyjet has already noted a problem and has a plan in place to increase the numbers of female pilots on its books; British Airways, on the other hand, does not have a massive gender pay gap by the standards of the sector, as its efforts towards diversity are longer-established, and extend beyond pilots, into engineering and baggage handling and loading roles.  The issue as to why fewer women train for specialist technical jobs requires action in education and expectations, and is one for wider society, not simply employers, to consider.

On the potential outsourcing hurdle, the fact that we now have reporting does mean that gender pay gaps are more transparent, and companies more potentially accountable, because the figures are in the public domain.  What CEO wants to go down as the one who fixed his (and it is usually his)  company’s figures by shuffling women off the books?  After all, it’s been noticed that law firms are not obliged to include partners of firms in their calculations, as they are not employees. As the optics of this exclusion are bad, some firms have published figures with partners included, so that the impact of male dominance at senior levels is more clearly demonstrated.  There are, though, a number of issues related to enforcement of gender pay gap reporting – the EHRC, the body responsible for ensuring that companies do report and are held to account, is poorly resourced and has limited powers to sanction employers.

Finally, on the 0% totem – the fact that there is a relatively small number of companies with gender pay gaps going in favour of women (going ‘past’ 0 if you like) shows that there are scenarios where women can be better paid. A 0% gender pay gap is not some blanket goal, but rather more of a direction of travel indicator, which invites us to think a bit more about what the absence of a gender pay gap might look like, and what the barriers to it may be. As nearly four-fifths of organisations pay men more, we have plenty of time to contemplate these questions.  One pertinent question that arises is what level of gender pay gap is acceptable?  Will gender pay gap reporting mean that deviation from the overall average of reported gender pay gaps, becomes a new benchmark for companies?

And above all of this, the real issue is, why are the figures turning out as skewed towards men as they are?  Two important reasons: one – these are legacy figures, the summation of all the hiring, retention and promotion decisions made over many years up to now.  That was then – let’s plan for a more equal future.

Secondly, all those decisions are the sum of what the numbers in themselves cannot address.  If  we have all these qualified women who are doctors, lawyers, MBA-holding executives, PhDs (and we do, and have had, for decades now) why are they not the senior consultants, law firm partners, ‘C-suite’ office holders, or professors, in near-equal numbers?  And, at least as importantly, why – to name just a few examples –  are the cleaners, care workers, air crew, classroom assistants, secretaries, un-promoted teachers, paid so comparatively badly?  The structural problems of gendered occupational sectors, and poor pay associated with  lack of progression, are crucial to questions of inequality, and unveiled in all their ‘glory’ via gender pay gap reporting.  Public sector organisations – often regarded a good place for professional women to be – have also been shown to have substantial gender pay gaps. For example, the worst performing council on reporting measures has a median gender pay gap of 34%, while 65% of its employees are women.  A range of trade unions, universities and health trusts have also reported gaps well in excess of the average among reporting organisations (median 9.7%).  This raises the question as to what organisations should do to remedy their position.  In public sector organisations, ‘family friendly’ and flexible working options are often available.  What the figures may be indicating is that these options are associated – however subconsciously – with a dearth of career progression: with retention, rather than with promotion, of staff.

It’s not news that caring work is undervalued, whether performed professionally, or outside the workforce, back at home.  In both cases, this work is overwhelmingly done by women.  Until that changes, and until the tendency for ‘feminised’ labour forces to be associated with lower pay is quashed, the gender pay gap is going to persist. Until there’s a will to address the inequalities that stop both men and women balancing childcare, care for relatives, and employment, we’re stuck.  The figures show it. Long ago the Undertones sang ‘You’ve got my number, why don’t you use it?’  On the gender pay gap, we have the numbers, now we need to use them to begin to address all those cultural undertones in the workplace.

 

 

 

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Springing into action on Shared Parental Leave?

20 Mar

Today marks the vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere, the official start of Spring, and the day when we experience almost exactly equal amounts of daylight and night time.  What better time to consider the balance between the sexes in terms of earning and caring work, and gender equality in general?

Appropriately, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee have published their Fathers and the Workplace report, making recommendations concerning paternity leave, flexible working, workplace culture and the much-discussed – and often criticised –  Shared Parental Leave, which was first made available to parents almost exactly three years ago, in 2015.

Shared Parental Leave was introduced in order to better meet the aspirations of new generations of mothers and fathers, who wish to share employment and childcare responsibilities more equally, avoiding the traditional default of breadwinner fathers and mothers as parents-in-chief.  As dual-earner families have grown in numbers, and younger men and women report more egalitarian attitudes regarding paid work and parenting, this all seems to make good sense.

However, the particular system of Shared Parental Leave that was introduced in the UK has done little to shift the dial in practice, in terms of who does what.  It does not come with a realistic level of wage replacement, nor does it represent a means whereby fathers have their own entitlement to parental leave; rather it is a method for women to transfer leave to their partners during the first year of their child’s lives, after they have used up the initial weeks of non-transferable maternity leave. The government estimated that the policy would be taken up by 2-8% of parents, and evidence collected since, suggests that even this figure may have been optimistic.  As the Committee’s report sums up: ‘The Government’s objective is for mothers and fathers to share the task of caring for their children more equally. The current shared parental leave policy will not achieve this on a large scale, as the Government’s own estimates of take-up show’.

In order to address the low take-up issue, the Government has embarked on a new campaign, ‘share the joy‘ which publicises Shared Parental Leave, showing couples who have used it, talking up the benefits of both parents being able to work and to take leave during their baby’s first year.  But without higher levels of pay for Shared Parental Leave, it is hard to see how raising awareness will increase the attractiveness of the package.  And while, of course, caring for babies and children can often be joyful and rewarding, what many parents are looking for is a policy which will enable then to share the load of meals, laundry, appointments as well as the joys of parenting.  As today’s report says, ‘[the] campaign to promote shared parental leave is welcome, but does not constitute a plan of action for achieving wider societal change.

If we’ve learnt anything from other countries, it is that getting to that point takes time.  The ‘latte papas’, the much-vaunted buggy pushers of Sweden’s urban landscape, only reached a critical mass because of decades of policy tweaking. Sweden first changed the law regarding leave in 1974, when maternity leave was changed to parental leave, for which both mothers and fathers were eligible.  However, there was an option for men to sign over their parental leave to their partners – in 1994 it was discovered that most did so, meaning that only 10% of parental leave days were actually used by men.  In order to attain the gender equality envisaged by the original policy, the government introduced a ‘daddy quota’ of 30 days leave in 1994.  If fathers didn’t use this quota, the month of leave was lost from the couple’s total entitlement.  This policy had immediate impact on fathers’ participation in early parenting, and dedicated leave for fathers spread as a policy throughout Scandinavia.  In the intervening years, the amount of leave for men has been increased repeatedly, and the Nordic countries regularly top international indices measuring both gender equality and happiness, or life satisfaction (incidentally, today is also the International Day of Happiness, and the Finns top the UN’s index this year).

At the end of last year the Telegraph reported that the Swedish government was looking to increase their ‘daddy quota’ to 5 months, to further enhance gender equality.  Perhaps a test of how embedded such policies have become, is that in the early days of parental leave in Sweden, sceptics complained that men just used their days to go elk hunting;  now in the West of Sweden where an elk hunting week is an annual tradition, they are looking change the rules for subsidised childcare to mean that parents can have an ‘elk days’ entitlement, without their partners having to take holiday to accommodate the hunt ….

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Nordic experience of dedicated leave for fathers has long been cited as a preferred solution to the problem of gender imbalances in take-up of parental leave.  Today’s report goes so far as to recommend that the government considers replacing the current system of Shared Parental Leave with a Nordic-style independent entitlement for fathers.  The Women and Equalities Committee suggests a 12-week period of paternal leave, with the first four weeks paid at a capped wage replacement rate, and the rest at statutory levels.  While the costs of such a scheme are not inconsiderable, there is scope for them to be balanced by greater participation in the workforce by mothers.  There are still plenty of barriers to the success of such a policy – not least the slowness of government machinery.  Elsewhere in the report there are recommendations related to flexible working which are not slated for review until 2019, and Brexit will keep everyone busy at least until then.  There are also wider barriers, in the shape of prevailing workplace culture, and the long reach of gender stereotypes. But as the Swedish experience shows, we might be getting somewhere with this type of policy in 20 years’ time.  Springing in to action? Maybe not, but perhaps, at last, a kickstart.

 

 

Come Together (with apologies to the Beatles)

2 Mar

Here come ol’ Maybot

She come grooving up slowly

She got EU eyeballed

She one high stakes roller

She got down with DUP

Got to play some joker she don’t know who to please

 

She wear high shoe

She got innovative jam ball

She got pointing finger

She shout ‘Clarity’

She say I know EU and EU know me

One thing she can tell you is you gonna be free

 

Come together, right now, over me

 

She Brexit production

She got Swiss Alp gumboot

She got BoJo sidekick

She one party cracker

She got Fox down in DIT

Hold you to his trade deals you can fell his unease

 

Come together, right now, over me ….

 

She got border crossing

She got early warning

She got muddied waters

She one BoJo filter

She says ‘one and one and one is three’

Got to be book-cooking ‘cause it’s so hard to see

Come together, right now, over me

 

Oh!

Come together

Yeah

Come together

Yeah …..

 

 

 

 

Brexit Valentine (or It’s not EU, it’s me …)

14 Feb

 

You may not be the one,

But you are ‘a’ one

With whom I feel strongly aligned;

I love our deep and special relationship

(For details, read my mind…)

 

I have some issues with boundaries –

I like them fuzzy, not hard –

If you want to trade with me

I may play a Trump card …

 

I adore our rich exchanges,

Please don’t change a bit,

I like being in your club –

But not the membership….

 

We’re going through a transition –

It’s just a silly phase –

You’re my friend with all the benefits,

I’m the one who involuntarily pays …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A leaf from suffrage history

6 Feb

This is a picture of a flyer which hangs in my house. The campaign for Votes for Women was long, and fought on many fronts, and pamphleting was an important part of it.  One hundred years ago today, the first women (over 30, propertied) achieved the right to vote. You can see on this flyer that the President of the National Union of Suffrage Societies is listed as ‘Mrs Henry Fawcett’ – not as Millicent – who we have grown accustomed to hearing of, and to celebrating.  Soon there’ll be a statue in Parliament Square. Her listing here suggests that even for campaigning households, changing social norms in public could be a gradual process.

 

So how did I come by this little piece of social history? Probably not where you’d most likely expect.   A few years ago, I was up in the Highlands, and on a day when the weather was less than ideal for outdoor activities, we went to the book fair in the local town to pass a bit of time.  It was there that I found the flyer – under a few layers of unremarkable stuff, in a transparent pocket on an antiquarian’s stall.  I was intrigued and spent a bit of time reading through it – my kids came over to see what I was doing – ‘that’s so you’ they declared – finding something feminist in an unlikely venue.….

 

But should I have been surprised to find it in the Highlands, in a back-of-beyond kind of place? Turns out, not so much as you might have thought.  My artefact prompted me to find out a bit more about suffrage movements in Scotland, and what the word on the street, well North of Watford Gap, would have been.  I discovered that both suffragist and suffragette movements were, in fact, highly active North of the border. Edinburgh had one of the earliest suffrage societies, founded in the 1870s.  I’d not noticed before that Winston Churchill stood as an MP in Dundee, and was apparently regularly confronted by women campaigning for the right to vote in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, in comparatively provincial Perth there was a prison where women protestors were force-fed in the same brutal way as happened in London.  Scottish churches supported votes for women and spread the word, and women in Highland fishing communities were also activists. A bit of browsing online shows that there was a young female piper who played on marches for the Suffragettes, and a range of Scottish women who made their mark upon the movement – including Marion Wallace Dunlop, who was instrumental in the use of hunger strikes as protest.  My dip into the Scottish story shows that women everywhere in the UK played their part in giving us the vote.

 

On the flyer, the 14 reasons for supporting women’s suffrage make a vital connection between women’s experience and legislation – laws should be made by all those who abide by them, and reflecting the interests of all.  But the later reasons listed touch on something else as well – that women should have the vote because they desire it, and that objections to this are not based on reason.  The fight for votes for women put women’s agency on the agenda, and made the case for women’s place as full participants in public life.  One reason sums it up: ‘it is for the common good of all’. Representation really matters – on the pages of history, and in the corridors of power.

 

 

 

Corporate models

24 Jan

Last week’s Presidents Club men-only charity fundraising event has now become notorious, thanks to the undercover reporting of a young female journalist at the Financial Times.  She, along with over 120 other ‘tall, thin, pretty’ women, was hired to be a hostess at a gala evening where all the invitees were men – not just any men, but captains of industry, entertainers and politicians.  The women were asked to wear black high heels and even black underwear, and were given ‘sexy’ outfits of short black dresses and corset-style belts.  The prospective hostesses were all asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement before entering the event.  What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot apparently. The FT journalist reported a sexualised atmosphere.  The women were paraded before the guests before taking their seats, and, unusually, were permitted to drink, during an evening which proceeded to descend into groping and propositions.  Meanwhile, an auction of prizes took place, raising £2 million for children’s charities.  Lots even included one featuring the gift of plastic surgery to add ‘spice’ to your wife, among the more routine offers of executive-friendly luxuries and services.

Quite rightly, the response to these revelations has been outrage, that such blatant sexism still exists in the British establishment.  I share the collective revulsion at the event, but sadly, I’m not that surprised.  If you’ve ever worked in hospitality, you’ll know that women in service are frequently viewed as quasi-public property by clients, and often hired on appearance: from the name badge I had to wear as a student waitress emblazoned ‘here to care for you’, to the egregious spread of ‘Hooters’-style restaurants, it’s pretty clear which sex is paid to please which.  And sleazy overtones are not just the preserve of relatively low-paid service industries.  At corporate conferences and exhibitions the world over, it is quite normal to find companies paying young, well-made-up women to entice delegates to their stalls, or to ‘work’ the networking sessions in order to generate interest in products and services, in their overwhelmingly male audiences.  Think of ‘brand ambassadors’ – how many male ones come to mind outside the world of sport and watches?

Since the FT report came out, charities listed as beneficiaries on the Presidents Club website have been quick to distance themselves from the event.  Great Ormond Street Hospital has gone so far as to say that it will return all donations received from this source.  The charity beneficiaries were not responsible for the nature of the event, nor would they wish to be associated with it. It’s certainly not conventional for charities to host ‘men-only’ events.

However, charities are not immune from wider corporate trends. I remember coming across an agency a while back which offered ‘spokesmodels’ among its services.  What on earth is a ‘spokesmodel’? Well, a brief google search showed that it means a very good-looking woman (sometimes a professional model elsewhere) who can be trained up in the details of your cause and campaigns, and can be employed at events to encourage pledges and donations from invited audiences. The assumption is all too often that the people with money are male, and the people who attract them to think about spending, female.

The whole corporate system still revolves far too much around these unhealthy dynamics.  And the damage is not restricted to the young women fondled at events like the Presidents Club, it seeps into professional life so that women often tend to remain in revenue-generating, not revenue-controlling positions.  The charity sector, like so many others, has a majority of women in its workforce, but a male-dominated executive layer, often accompanied by man-heavy boards of trustees.  So when I heard the about the President Club, I was sad, but not completely surprised.  After all, it’s only a short while ago that the UN appointed a comic book character as an Honorary Ambassador in support of empowerment of women and girls …

 

New Year, old beginnings …

2 Jan

Like many parents, I’m sure, I read Jess Phillips’ piece in the papers on New Year’s Eve with a feeling of recognition.  She wrote very evocatively about the early days of parenting in winter.  Her baby was in the night feeding stage as Christmas came, meaning that the effort to stay warm when woken in the pre-dawn hours was paramount. Bundled up with a baby in blankets on the sofa, the world shrinks to a milky bubble.  It took me right back to the strange half-lit half-life of the first few weeks with my own two children, but with two important contrasts.  My firstborn arrived in summer, and therefore the struggle was not how to stay warm in the darkness, but rather how to keep cool enough… and I did not manage to learn from my experience, as my second child was also born in the holiday season.   As another year comes around it’s a time to reflect on past and future, and I found myself transported back to that time of muslin cloths and weak sunlight: the seemingly endless weeks in the not-quite-daylight, nursing newborns….

My first birth did not proceed to plan, so we were in hospital for several days.  It was already warm outside.  I remember holding my new baby up to a mirror as the scent of gifts of flowers hung cloyingly around us, and the noise of the city from the street below was like something from another world.  When we got home, it was one of the hottest weekends for years, and I was fixated on the card thermometer in the bedroom which, even in early hours, struggled to stay in the green hues of the ‘comfortable’ zone.  As my son fed, in his little vest, I worried that he was getting too red from shared heat as he lay in my arms.  I would settle him under a muslin square as we saw the night hours through listening to the radio – the World Service still makes me think of babies.   Our bedroom then was painted blue, and as the rising summer sun filtered through the curtains and played on the walls, it was almost like being in a fish tank – the glimmer made it hard to get fully asleep again.

When my second baby was born, it was already high summer, and I remember particularly taking her on an early outing, after a few weeks back in the fish tank.  We were off to the suburbs to spend a day with relatives in their garden.   I was pleased to be getting away from our street where the buildings reflected heat off each other to make things even more oppressive – just my luck that this turned out to be among the hottest days on record in the UK.  I was concerned that the baby would get overheated and distressed in unfamiliar surroundings.  In fact, we set her in the shade at lunchtime, and she just slept, and slept, completely peaceful all that long hot day.  She woke in the late afternoon, and as soon as we got home it was a clear that it would be another very broken night.  With a cooling fan droning past us, we somehow got through, stickily, to the other side …

Those, hazy, hallucinatory days of summer sleeplessness taught me a great deal about babies’ resilience, and about keeping going… This New Year, my children are both teenagers, full of lives of their own, and the challenges are rather different. But even at this distance, reading about the cocoon of early parenthood brings it all back. The long nights of early child rearing are a kind of a time capsule – although deeply buried, you can always revisit them.  It’s a phase that does pass – often with relief –  but it is also somehow indelible.  A season in life, no matter what time of year it happens.

 

 

 

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